betsy ross

Nike, Colin Kaepernick, the American flag and slavery combined together to create a lightning rod of controversy last week.

To celebrate Independence Day, Nike produced a red-and-white sneaker with an image of the 13-star Betsy Ross American flag on the back (in reality, whether Betsy Ross actually made this first American flag is disputed among historians, but that’s a story for another time). 

There was swift backlash, as people took issue with the use of this flag for two reasons: (1) It was created and used during a time when slavery was legal in the United States, and (2) it had been appropriated and used by white nationalist groups. 

Colin Kaepernick, whose protest of kneeling during the national anthem as a San Francisco 49ers player brought him both praise and scorn, told Nike of his issues with the design, and the shoe was subsequently pulled from sale. Ever since, pundits on both sides have been debating Nike’s decision with some saying it’s a respectful move in order to avoid associations with slavery and the far-right, and others saying it’s erasing American history and an example of political correctness gone mad.

I think the debate over Nike’s flag shoe is emblematic of a bigger issue surrounding America’s founding period and its use in current discourse. 

People argued the Betsy Ross flag had been appropriated by white nationalists and the far-right. Those people aren’t wrong. According to NBC News, white nationalist groups like Identity Evropa and the Ku Klux Klan have used the Betsy Ross flag to symbolize a period when slavery was legal in the United States. While there was a time when use of the Betsy Ross flag was non-controversial (it was present at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013), some would argue times have changed and it’s now nothing but a symbol for bigots and racists. 

I disagree. Now more than ever, we need to reclaim America’s founding era and its associated symbols.

At its core, America’s founding is about a group of bold men with a vision of breaking away from what they saw as a tyrannical empire in order to create a new nation; one which would be unique for emphasizing freedom, liberty and self-governance. Did we always meet those ideals? 

No. Besides slavery, there were property requirements to vote in some states until the 1850s. Women didn’t get the right to vote until the 19th Amendment in 1919. And African Americans weren’t truly guaranteed the right to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But I would argue the Founding Fathers set high ideals and left room for change, so we could move closer to living up to those ideals. And while slavery was part of early America, the men who founded the republic weren’t all supporters of slavery. Benjamin Franklin spent the last few years of his life campaigning against slavery and petitioned Congress for its end. I think men like Franklin would be hurt and insulted the flag of their nation had become associated not with liberty and freedom, but with slavery and hate.

The Betsy Ross flag may be mainly used as a symbol for white nationalists now, but we should not let them keep it. There is a lot we can admire in the hope and idealism of the nation’s founding. Rather than looking at it as a time when slavery was protected, we should look at it as a time when enterprising men set out the goals of the American experiment and left room for future generations to pick up where they left off in meeting those goals. That vision is something that still resonates, and it’s what the Betsy Ross flag is truly about.

Jason Zappulla is a UF history senior. His column appears on Tuesdays.